St Nicholas arriving

By Wendy Hughes

For most children in The Netherlands, the most important day during December is 5th December, when Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings them their presents!

St. Nicholas’ day is usually on the 6th December, but in The Netherlands, the major celebrations are held on the 5th December. It all starts on the second Saturday of November (the first Saturday after 11th November) when Sinterklaas travels to a city or town in The Netherlands, and Dutch tradition informs us that St. Nicholas lives in Madrid in Spain, and every year he chooses a different harbour to arrive in Holland, so as many children as possible get a chance to see him.

Sinterklass travels with his servants called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Peter’) and when they come ashore from the steam boat, all the local church bells ring in celebration.  St Nicholas is dressed in his red robes and leads a procession through the town, riding a white horse. Every town in The Netherlands has a few Sinterklaas helpers, dressed the same as Sinterklaas who help give the presents out.

Dutch children are told that the Zwarte Pieten keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a sack and Zwarte Pieten will take them to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave!

shoes with notes for St Nicholas

On the evening that Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands, children leave a shoe by the fireplace or sometimes a windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs. They hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents for them. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents. They’re told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that ‘Zwarte Pieten’ will then climb down the chimney, or through a window and put the presents and/or sweets  in their shoes.

Black Peter

In many families the children are told that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet make a weekly visit, so the children leave their shoe by the fireplace or window i.e. every Saturday until the main Sinterklaas party on 5th December.

The evening of December 5th is called St. Nicholas’ Eve ‘Sinterklaasavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ (present evening), and the children will receive their presents during the evening. There might be a knock at the door and if they are very lucky, they might find a sack full of presents!

Dutch biscuits

Sinterklaas parties are often held on St. Nicholas’ Eve (5th), where treasure hunt games are played with poems and riddles giving the clues. Children follow the clues to find little presents left by Sinterklaas, and special biscuits and sweets are eaten at the party.

White chocolate letters

One type of biscuit is called ‘letter blanket’ or ‘banketletter’ (meaning letter cake), which is made from marzipan or pastry. The biscuits are made in the shapes of the first letter of their name, and another sweet biscuit eaten at these parties are called  ‘pepernoot’ which are made with cinnamon and spices in the pastry biscuit mix.

On the 6th of December Sinterklaas (the birthday of Sinterklaas) leaves the Netherlands by steamboat via the entrance of the port of Rotterdam (Europe’s largest port) called the Hook of Holland and he travels back to Spain.

Dutch letters

Surprise presents are also given on St. Nicholas’ Day. A custom at the Sinterklaas parties, often within classes at schools, is that everyone’s name is put into a hat and everyone picks another person’s name – then they have to make a surprise present for that person. The presents are often things that the person would find useful with their favorite hobby. The presents come with a poem inside that gives a clue to who might have sent the present, but it is all meant to be a mystery!

Saint Nicholas has always had close ties with Amsterdam since 343 AD. Legend informs us that Sinterklaas originally came from modern-day Turkey as St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Mira, and a respectable man who was kind to children. No one really knows why he chose to live in Spain but historians point to the Spanish domination over the Netherlands in the past.

Parade

The medieval attire of Sinterklaas’ assistants, the Pieten, is equally mysterious, leading to the conclusion that they must have been stuck in chimneys for long time – hence the sooty faces and time-warped costumes.

On Christmas Eve night, Dutch Children believe that Santa Claus, (who is also call ‘Christmas man’ / ‘Kerstman’ to avoid confusion with Sinterklaas!) comes from Lapland in Finland to deliver more presents!

Presents

Christmas celebrations in The Netherlands are separate from the visit of Sinterklaas, and Christmas Day itself is a much quieter day in The Netherlands, with a Church Service and family meal. Sometimes there is a special Christmas Day ‘Sunday School’ in the afternoon at the church, where the Christmas Story and other traditional stories are told. These are often the only presents children will get on Christmas Day because they have already received most of their presents on St. Nicholas Day.

Dutch clogs

 

 

 

About Wendy Hughes

Wendy turned to writing, in 1989, when ill-health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Since then she has published 26 nonfiction books, and over 2000 articles. Her work has appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British, and Guiding magazine. She has a column in an America/Welsh newspaper for ex-pats on old traditions and customs in Wales. Her books include many on her native Wales, Anglesey Past and Present, The Story of Brecknock, Brecon, a pictorial History of the Town, Carmarthen, a History and Celebration and Tales of Old Glamorgan, and a book on Walton on Thames in the Images of England series, a company history and two books on the charity Hope Romania. She has also co-authored two story/activity books for children. Her latest books are: Haunted Worthing published in October 2010, a new colour edition of The Story of Pembrokeshire published in March 2011, and Shipwrecks of Sussex in June 2011 and Not a Guide to Worthing in 2014. She is working on a book entitled A-Z of Curious Sussex which will be published in 2016 Wendy also works with clients to bring their work up to publishable standard and is currently working on an autobiography with a lady that was married to a very famous 1940’s travel writer. Wendy has spent many years campaigning and writing on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a progressive genetic connective tissue disorder from which she herself suffers. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raises awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession, and produces the group’s literature, and has written the only book on the condition, Stickler The Elusive Syndrome, and has also contributed to a DVD on the condition, Stickler syndrome: Learning the Facts. She has also writing three novels, Sanctimonious Sin, a three generation saga set in Wales at the turn of the century, Power That Heal set in the Neolithic period entitled Powers that Heal, and a semi biographical book entitled New Beginnings which deals with two generations coping with blindness and a genetic condition. She has also had a handful of short stories published, and in her spare time is working on several at the moment. She also gives talks on a variety of subjects including Writing and Placing Articles, Writing Local History, Writing as Therapy, Writing your first novel, etc, and runs workshops on the craft of writing – both fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and a member of the Society of Authors.